JERUSALEM — J ERUSALEM The prospect of an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program that would ease economic sanctions on that country set off concerns in Israel’s government circles Friday that the United States and its allies are about to surrender a critical edge in the standoff with a nation conservatives here insist poses a threat to Israel’s existence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Friday that Israel would not be bound by any accord and would do what it needs to do to defend itself, a hardly veiled threat that it might launch its own military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Analysts here said his pique probably reflected the concerns of other nearby countries, including Saudi Arabia and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, which see Iran as a major regional rival.
“Israel and American allies in the region are extremely concerned that the American role that has underwritten their security has a big question mark,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “Their concern is that the agreement is a slippery slope, and that though the Americans have stressed that the relief is not removing the institutional foundations of the sanctions, the feeling is that this is the thin edge of the wedge. A lot will depend on the details.”
Those details were not known when Netanyahu spoke after what was reportedly a heated meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who left Israel Friday morning for Geneva for what might have been the final hours of talks. But Netanyahu made it clear he did not like what he thought might be coming.
“I understand the Iranians are walking around very satisfied in Geneva, as well they should be, because they got everything and paid nothing,” Netanyahu said. “They wanted relief of sanctions after years of a grueling sanctions regime. They got that. They’re paying nothing because they’re not reducing in any way their nuclear enrichment capability.
“So Iran got the deal of the century, and the international community got a bad deal.”
Netanyahu spoke alone to reporters at Ben Gurion airport after Kerry canceled a statement in an apparent attempt to avoid a public confrontation.
“This is a very bad deal,” Netanyahu said. “Israel utterly rejects it, and what I’m saying is shared by many, many in the region, whether or not they express it publicly. Israel is not obliged by this agreement, and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and to defend the security of its people.”
Netanyahu said he had reminded Kerry of his statement that no deal with Iran is better than a bad deal, and he urged him “not to rush to sign, to wait, to reconsider, to get a good deal.”
How broadly Netanyahu’s concerns were shared among Israelis was unclear. Public opinion here is less preoccupied with the threat from Iran than Netanyahu’s statements would suggest, and some Israeli analysts suggested that Netanyahu was overreacting to a deal that had not yet been set.
Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former head of Israeli military intelligence, urged a more measured response.
“I see this as a very limited deal whose aim is to facilitate the negotiations,” Yadlin told Israel Radio. “The details have to be examined in order to determine whether the deal is good or bad.”
“Israel has to be watchful and make sure there’s no bad deal, but you can’t call an interim process a bad deal. . . . We have to influence the negotiations, and the question is how we have more influence: By taking extreme positions, or by an open, heart-to-heart conversation, building trust between us and the Americans to define the parameters on which there can be no compromise.”
Netanyahu also took a combative line on talks with the Palestinians after 48 hours of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry, during which he warned that failure to reach agreement in negotiations resumed three months ago could spark a third Palestinian uprising.
New Israeli announcements on settlement building have cast a pall over the talks, with Palestinian negotiators threatening to resign and Netanyahu accusing the Palestinians of manufacturing an artificial crisis. Visiting the West Bank, Kerry urged Israel to curb building in settlements there to create a better climate for negotiations.
Netanyahu asserted that the diplomatic pressure should be put on the Palestinians, “who refuse to budge.”
“In any case, no amount of pressure will make me or the government of Israel compromise on the basic security and national interests of the State of Israel,” he added.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.